Is cancel culture hampering your diversity, equity and inclusion plans?

One of the keys to building a rapport between colleagues from disparate backgrounds is to encourage them to learn about each other’s experiences. But the growing fear of being ostracised for asking the wrong questions has become a serious barrier to understanding

Many prominent people have fallen victim to so-called cancel culture since the term entered widespread usage in 2019. It rarely seems to matter how long ago the ‘cancelled’ person made the comments that prompt their ostracism or whether they show genuine remorse. In most cases, the court of public opinion shows little mercy. 

I won’t name any cancelled individuals or their opinions. For one thing, I wouldn’t want to remind readers of comments that may already have caused them discomfort. For another, this article isn’t about my views on specific instances where cancel culture has applied. 

I often wonder whether some of the most notorious cancellation cases have made people nervous about discussing workplace inclusion matters. Is a fear of being ostracised making it harder for colleagues to hold frank conversations at work? I believe so.

Before I consider this fear and the impact it may be having on firms’ efforts to improve diversity, equity and inclusion, I think it’s wise to explore what the term ‘cancel culture’ means. 

What is cancel culture?

Many definitions exist, but I feel that the best one is offered by Matthew Smith, YouGov’s head of data journalism. In December 2021, he defined cancel culture as “one of the new political catchphrases of recent years. As with so many Westminster bubble terms, it is an import from the US, and refers to a desire or attempts to ostracise people or organisations with certain viewpoints, generally those that are considered un-progressive.”

The senseless murder of George Floyd in May 2020 prompted countless debates on topics such as racism and white privilege. I facilitated many such discussions for more than 50 organisations in a wide range of sectors and industries. In several of these, the participants shared very different opinions. This was, of course, to be expected. 

It was heartening that so many people in those sessions simply wanted to listen and learn, while those who asked questions did so to understand different life experiences from their own. Yet there were many others who, even with the promise of psychological safety and support, still felt that they couldn’t air their views for fear of a backlash. I think that many senior leaders avoid engaging with the subject altogether for this very reason.

Living with opposing views

It can be challenging to create equity for people with protected characteristics under the Equality Act 2010 without isolating others. We often forget that, even within the protected identities, there will be individuals with polarised views. How can organisations use phrases such as “bring your authentic self to work” without considering that values held by people from some under-represented groups can conflict with those of people in others?

I feel passionately that organisations must provide safe spaces in which people can discuss the inequity they experience because of their identities. It’s important to encourage open dialogue and to encourage respect, empathy and tolerance in the absence of agreement. 

Some while ago, I ran an inclusion workshop for the transport industry alongside one of my consultants, who is transgender. During it, we held a session in which we invited participants to ask us anything they wished. It prompted a question from someone who’d been quiet up to that point. 

They asked the consultant in a confrontational tone: “Why do you want to be treated so differently? Why can’t you just come in and get on with it?” Nonetheless, my colleague was pleased to answer these questions. 

Holding honest discussions can have a positive cultural impact on an organisation. It’s something that keeping quiet for fear of making mistakes can’t do

When discussing inequity, we must acknowledge that some people feel that it’s a lot of fuss about nothing. The questions gave my colleague a great opportunity to explain that to “just come in and get on with it” – without the micro-aggressions and inequities they were facing as a transgender person – was exactly what they wanted. 

In another recent inclusivity discussion I facilitated for a small firm, one of the participants posed a particularly interesting question.

She said: “I’ve wanted to discuss this for some time and have agonised throughout this conversation about whether I should ask it here. I don’t want to offend anyone, but I think my confusion would only worsen should I not raise the subject now. As a religious person, I’d rather not demonstrate my allyship for non-binary people by putting ‘she/her’ after my email signature. This isn’t comfortable for me to do, although I would be happy to call a non-binary person ‘they/them’. How do my colleagues feel about this?”

This statement was both brave and telling. How do we ensure that one person can live their truth – which could be shaped by religion – while according the same freedom to someone whose identity may well have been questioned or even attacked by that religion? 

Why it’s good to talk

Holding honest discussions – even about DE&I fatigue – can have a positive cultural impact on an organisation. It’s something that keeping quiet for fear of making mistakes can’t do.

There is too much focus on what you can’t say, rather than all the things you can say if you widen your vocabulary and make an effort to understand the language of inclusivity. 

Diversity really just means difference. As employers, we need to respect the fact that not everyone will see things the same way. We have to let people disagree. We must ensure that a person’s identity won’t impair their ability to succeed in our organisations. A different opinion or life experience should not cloud our judgement of someone’s talent. 

A UK survey by YouGov at the end of last year found that 40% of respondents had avoided airing their sociopolitical views at work. Most reported that there had been at least some occasions on which they’d felt unable to express their opinions for fear of a negative response.

Practical ways to prompt honest discussion and understanding

So how do we re-engage? I encourage a few approaches. 

Use external materials to address difficult subjects. These could be books by DE&I specialists, autobiographies or works by authors who write about issues of identity. Such resources can enable colleagues to discuss themes without having to overshare about matters that are important to them. 

Provide an opportunity for confidentiality. In workshops, that could mean letting participants send questions straight to the facilitator anonymously, so that they don’t have to talk in front of their peers and, potentially, feel judged.

Consider establishing a ‘how to speak to me’ protocol, enabling employees to suggest the inclusive language they would prefer their colleagues to use. This helps to remove both the burden of explanation from people who may be tired of having to do so and the anxiety of asking from those who are unsure.

By holding frequent discussions about inclusion, leaders can coach people on knowing the difference between what’s appropriate and what isn’t. One-to-one coaching and reverse mentoring can also work well.

Odessa Hamilton, a research officer in behavioural science with The Inclusion Initiative at the London School of Economics, offers the best summary of the power of inclusive language. “It pays homage to the concept of tolerance and reflects legitimate respect for others,” she says. 

If you can build a culture based on mutual understanding, respect and tolerance, you stand to have a happier workforce.